IPTV set-top box quandaries confront Tier 2, Tier 3 telcos, says Bulk

In this edition, IPTV Update concludes its conversation with Frank Bulk, technology and product development manager at Premier Communications in Sioux Center, IA, about the real-world IPTV deployment experiences of Tier 2 and Tier 3 telcos in the United States.

Part One of the interview dealt with several issues, including how the introduction of MPEG-4 affected development of MPEG-2 based solutions that were in the works and delays in the integration of certain middleware and set-top boxes.

In Part Two, Bulk expands on his thoughts regarding integration issues as well as how industry standards can help.

IPTV Update: What has been your experience with the integration of systems from various vendors — middleware, encoders, set-top boxes? What’s been the impact of adding a conditional-access solution to the system?

Frank Bulk: The good news is that early on in the MPEG-2 game, everyone was really willing to work together. In the Tier 2 and 3 market, the significant mentionables include Minerva and Myrio; Skystream, TANDBERG and Tut Systems; and Amino and Entone. For conditional access, they are Verimatrix and Widevine.

Everyone was feeling each other out, most specifically the middleware, STB and conditional-access vendors. Because the end-user experience is defined by the product of the middleware vendor, they often led the integration effort with the other two. But after several STB integration efforts (one for each combination, and then iterative software releases) and enough time for the vendors to see what was selling, some combinations fell away.

Around the same time, MPEG-4 integration efforts started. The existing STB vendors naturally committed to develop MPEG-4 products, but Scientific-Atlanta stirred things up by entering the IPTV market. For the Tier 2 and 3 operators, the carrot was STB price. Tier 1 service providers prefer working with larger vendors, and if Scientific-Atlanta could get a deal with even one carrier (i.e. SBC at the time, or Verizon), it would likely manufacture more STBs for this one customer than the Tier 2 and Tier 3 market would need, combined.

Excluding the plant that is required to deliver the high-bandwidth streams to the customer, STBs can become a service provider’s most expensive cost. On the flip side, one of the challenges in dealing with a device manufacturer the size of Scientific-Atlanta is that it typically requires minimum purchase commitments of 5000 or 10,000 units along with purchase forecasts. Fortunately, companies have been able to band together to meet those counts.

From our limited experience, there appears to be three ways to address STB integration: build the middleware off the raw metal, install it as an application on the STB’s OS, or use a very thin, browser-based framework supported by the OS. Each has its pros and cons. The first takes significant engineering resources and assistance by the hardware vendor, but results in a highly efficient solution because there’s no intermediary layers. But it means writing a significant amount of code for each model.

The second runs like a regular application, but depends on the underlying OS. This is the approach that our current middleware provider uses, and a DHCP bug and software inconsistencies within the same model from different production runs have bitten us several times.

The third approach offers the easiest portability and the fastest development time, but performance is almost wholly dependent on the underlying application and OS. Performance and reliability may not be as optimal.

Our statewide partner chose a vendor with the third approach for its MPEG-4 initiative, but STB integration has still appeared to be a challenge. It also promised a DVR model within a few months of its single-stream box, but that hasn’t materialized.

It’s worth noting that the vendors who provide the access networks — Calix, Occam, Pannaway, Wave 7 and Zhone — have not been a significant integration concern for middleware vendors. They’re really the unsung heroes because while the IPTV monitoring vendors emphasize QoE, suggesting that the network should draw my attention, occasional pixelization is the least of my concerns if the STB regularly freezes up, neighborhoodwide power outages lead to offline STBs, or parental controls don’t work as they ought.

The conditional-access vendors are an unfortunate but necessary evil in the IPTV formula. Most of content providers have not required encryption, but we anticipate that to change as IPTV service providers gain a larger market share and their exposure potential increases. Conditional access adds measurably to capital and operational costs in terms of encryptors and client licensing fees. The two leading CA vendors in the Tier 2 and 3 markets are Verimatrix and Widevine. The choice of CA vendor is transparent to the end user, so the selection is more often based on which middleware vendors and STBs they’ve integrated with.

IPTV Update: You point to the need for the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS) and similar groups to develop standards and a commitment on the part of vendors to implement them in their solutions. Are you seeing the movement you would like in that direction? If not, what do you foresee for IPTV implementations by Tier 2 and 3 operators?

Frank Bulk: Yes, standards are absolutely needed. They may not fit every vendor’s architectural approach, but the more that can be done to marry the different elements together, the better it is for the industry.

Mid-last year, ATIS released its “IPTV High Level Architecture Standard,” which is a good first step (http://www.atis.org/iif/). Membership includes Calix, Cisco (which purchased Scientific-Atlanta), Innovative Systems, Siemens (which purchased Myrio), Verimatrix and Widevine.

The DSL Forum introduced late last year a Technical Report, TR-135 Data Model for a TR-069 Enabled STB, that provides specifications on how STBs can be provisioned, managed and monitored. It’s exciting that vendors beyond home gateway and DSL modem manufacturers are riding the wave of interest and development of a standard that can reduce service providers’ operational costs.

There has also been some discussion and even a high-level proposal passed around among rural and small ITCs regarding whether a separate standards organization needs to be formed to develop standards that reflect the unique needs and challenges of Tier 2 and Tier 3 operators. However, there are obvious concerns about how this strategy lines up with market dynamics that favor the largest operators and their buying power.

One of the reasons that the smaller operators have fastened onto Scientific-Atlanta’s STB is that large service providers prefer to do business with larger, financially stable vendors, so Scientific-Atlanta will be able to gain the customers and associated unit volumes to keep prices low.

These large service providers are also able to demand a product that meets their specifications, hopefully ones that match the work being performed by the different standards bodies mentioned. Once standards are in the set-top boxes, shared by both small and large operators, middleware and conditional-access vendors will also need to step in line. But standards development is a long process measured in years, rather than months.

IPTV Update: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Frank Bulk: Without HD content on our IPTV platform, customers in our market are looking to satellite providers or the incumbent cable TV operator. We don’t have precise figures on the number of customers lost to the dish, but we hear enough questions, and complaints are filtering back to our office and the techs in the field that we know we’re not delivering as quickly as we need to be. We’ve been promising over a year that something will be coming “soon,” but with the delays, our words are ringing hollow. We have pulled the trigger on upgrading the coax plant in one of the towns where we provide both twisted pair and coax rather than saving those capital dollars for an IPTV product that can serve in and outside of town because of competitive pressures.

Another point worth mentioning is that our existing MPEG-2 STBs represent a huge stranded investment if we move to a middleware product that supports only the newest STBs, which naturally excludes MPEG-2 only boxes.

It’s not the MPEG-2 that the existing boxes wouldn’t be able to handle; it’s that the middleware software couldn’t load on them. I’m not aware at a time in our company’s history when we have been faced with the possibility of replacing so many CPEs at such a high cost per customer served in so short a time. There are customers who have been using the same black phone for 50 years despite three generations of telephone switches, and now we may have a situation that requires us to replace 100 percent of our STBs within three years of a deployment.

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